This is part four in my series of stories from our recent two-week vacation in Europe. You’ll find other entries here.
One of the absolute highlights of our trip was Richard Karpen’s tour of Copenhagen.
He’s an American who lives in Denmark about half of the year. Most mornings, he dresses up as Hans Christian Anderson, the famed author of children’s stories like “The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina,” and the still-extremely-relevant in America “Emperor’s New Clothes.” As Richard leads his guests, he talks in the first person as Anderson about his life, his work, and the city he loved. His tour is not just about sightseeing, but also cultural information about the Danish people, the country’s social structure, and its history.
He explained to us that while Danes do pay high taxes, they get a lot in return, from free health care to free college/trade/graduate school to financial assistance for two years when you lose your job to transportation assistance for the elderly. Their kids are taught tolerance from the start in school, and the social safety net is set up to help those at the bottom who need it. That keeps the crime rate low and gun violence nearly non-existent. The minimum wage is $17/hour, the work week is a maximum 37.5 hours, and every worker is entitled to 6 weeks vacation and ten holidays — to start. All of that contributes to the Danes consistently being ranked the happiest people on the planet.
As an example of the Danish mentality of caring for others, Richard’s most compelling story was about how Denmark protected the country’s 7,000 Jews during World War II after Nazis occupied the country (despite its neutral status). Families were hidden in homes of non-Jews until moved en masse to neighboring (and also neutral) Sweden. After the war, Danish Jews were welcomed home — and got their houses and jobs back!
When it was over, I told Richard it was the most socially progressive tour we’ve ever been on. We were lucky to catch him before he wrapped up his season in Copenhagen before the start of winter, which can be not only brutally cold and wet in Scandanavia, but also — because it’s so far north — full of short days where the sun doesn’t come up until 9am and sets around 3pm.
After Richard’s tour, Martha wanted to go to Amalienborg Palace, the royal residence, to see the changing of the guard. I couldn’t care less about that sort of royal stuff, but she’s into it, so we went. Around noon, a few dozen guards dressed up in their ceremonial finery (a la British Beefeaters), walked out onto the plaza, accompanied by a marching band. As other tourists blocked my view with their iPhones and iPads, I wasn’t clear exactly sure what was transpiring, but the musicians did a couple of tunes, the guards moved around a bit, and then it was over.
I did find it extremely ironic that these “guards” — who wore ceremonial swords and carried rifles with bayonets — were themselves protected by a phalanx of real police officers with real sidearms and bulletproof vests watching the crowd. Danes may be peaceful, tolerant people, but you never know when some tourist is going to snap from too much pomp and circumstance.
We also walked along the harborfront to see the Little Mermaid statue, done in bronze by sculptor Edvard Eriksen, unveiled in 1913, based on a ballet at the Royal Theatre inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson story. It’s one of those locales where every tourist must stop and have their picture taken, then have the person who took their picture also pose with the statue. Most of them are drawn there because of the Disney version of the movie, which had a much happier ending than Hans Christian Anderson’s story did. In his version, the mermaid falls in love with a prince and the sea witch tells her she can trade her tail for legs but lose the power to speak. She agrees, goes on land, but the prince isn’t interested in her, and she dies, turning into the foam of the sea. Moral of the story: princes suck.
I can’t finish my recap of the Copenhagen portion of our trip without talking about Christiania Freetown. This is a neighborhood unto itself, started by hippies in the early 1970s, some of whom still live there 40+ years later, with minimal oversight by city officials. Unfortunately, hygiene and sanitation are not major priorities in Freetown. There’s graffiti everywhere (personal policy: the more spray paint, the less I want to be there), plus lots of trash in yards, along with discarded pieces of cars, housing, etc. There are guys selling weed and hash at pop-up stands in the street, with lookouts at the corners because marijuana isn’t legal anywhere in Denmark. Walking around, we passed several vendors selling jewelry and other items targeted to tourists, but it didn’t seem anyone there has an actual job. The notion of a self-governed village where everyone minds their own business and just gets along may sound charming, but in reality, as my wife said, it’s icky.
One last observation from the hours we spent walking all over Copenhagen (mostly on cobblestone streets and sidewalks, which take a toll on the feet): we saw lots of statues, but none of military or political figures. Instead, there were busts of scientists, authors, and professors. That’s a refreshing change, and yet another reason we enjoyed the city so much.
You’ll find other entries in this series here.